Friday, October 2, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Intensive Scare Unit

For our podcast episode about this very film, please click here.

Year: 1982
Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Cast: Lee Grant, Michael Ironside, Linda Purl
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

For all their reputation of politeness, the Canadians really know what they’re doing when it comes to making movies about serial murder. On average, any Canadian slasher flick is miles ahead of its U. S. counterpart. My Bloody Valentine is way more loveable than the thematically similar The Prowler, the States’ Bloody Birthday couldn’t hold a candle to Happy Birthday To Me, Terror Train rattles the fraternity prank revenge flick Hell Night right off its track, and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is pretty much the Empire Strikes Back of slasherdom.

Sure, they’ve made their share of duds (I regret renting a tux for Prom Night and Humongous has miniscule worth), but in general the country knows what’s up when it comes to sticking sharp objects in people. Which is how we come to Visiting Hours, a 1982 hospital slasher that came late in the game but still lacerates the competition. Halloween II might be the medical horror people put on a pedestal form that era, but Visiting Hours is a filthy, gorgeous thoughtful treat.

As if we needed any more reasons to be scared of hospitals. Did you know they keep sick people there?

In Visiting Hours, outspoken TV anchorwoman Deborah Balin (Lee Grant) espouses nonviolent philosophies and vows to defend a woman who is being tried for shooting her husband after he beat her. Unfortunately this sets off misogynist serial killer Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside of – drumroll – Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II), a daddy’s boy whose mother severely burned his father after he hit her. After Colt attacks Deborah in her home, she is sent to County General Hospital to recuperate.

As she heals with the help of devoted/elfin and gorgeous nurse Sheila (Linda Purl) and her doting producer/boyfriend Gary Baylor (William Shatner of William Shatner), Colt stalks her over the course of Labour Day weekend. It’s a holiday, he can afford to take his time with it. Killers need to relax, too. In his deadly pursuit, he murders anystaff or patients who get in his way.

This is not, shall we say, a trivial pursuit.

The really exciting thing about Visiting Hours is that – uniquely in the slasher genre – it doesn’t just depict violence against women, it’s about violence against women. At every level, in nearly every scene, Visiting Hours engages with the real problems that manifest both in society and the media. Of course this means that the film isn’t free from the unpleasantness of those very same films, occasionally dipping into the post-grindhouse unpleasantness akin to Don’t Answer the Phone or Eyes of a Stranger.

But despite its scuzziness (most prevalent in a pretty arbitrary sequence I dubbed the Rape Interlude), Visiting Hours never asks you to enjoy the violence you’re watching. That’s a very important distinction, and its unrelenting focus brings it to a level that very few slashers even dream of reaching: it’s actually scary. From the opening attack on, Visiting Hours toys with your nerves, constructing tension sequences with all the right ingredients: well rounded, sympathetic characters, unpredictable outcomes, and multiple threads coming together for a big reveal.

The whole thing culminates in a Final Girl sequence so drawn-out and harrowing that she can hardly even scream by the end. Deborah is vulnerable, resourceful, indomitable, and very worthy of being at the center of the most meaningful character arc of early 80’s slasherdom. [SPOILERS This nonviolent woman is relentlessly pursued by Colt – an emissary of the rampant cult (geddit?) of misogyny. He so doggedly attacks her that she is eventually driven to thwart he ironclad morals and end her suffering with a violent act: gutting Colt like a fish. She is a pacifist driven to violence by a patriarchal society that devalues women and only creates more evil in the world.] It might not be perfectly expressed, but damn if it isn’t one of the most engaging slasher storylines I’ve seen in months.

And that’s saying something. Pray for me.

Happily, much of the grittiness of Colt Hawker is scrubbed away by either circumstances (the girl he brings home to torment later plays a key role in his downfall) or a hearty inoculation of camp. Because you can’t have existed in 1982 without being inherently embarrassing, there’s plenty of silly moments to cheer you up. A big source of amusement is the fact that Colt Hawker changes costumes more often than a Lady Gaga concert, including a bizarre tribal getup complete with clip-on piercings. He actually stops to change in the middle of a chase sequence! My current working theory is that Visiting Hours is an aborted prequel to the Dana Carvey classic, Master of Disguise.

Another plot point that will have you and your friends debating for hours is Sheila’s “babysitter.” She’s always around, has no qualms about using the shower or the bed, and drapes herself lovingly over the duvet wrapped only in a towel. They’re about as explicit as a lesbian couple could get back in the day, while remaining maddeningly determined to act like there’s nothing unusual going on beyond being the hired help.

Although my dream job does involve nobody giving a damn what I wear, so maybe she just hooked it up.

As if that weren’t enough, the movie is just plain good. I know I’m a sucker for a bold color scheme, but the hospital exterior and many key scenes are lit with a chilling blue that creates a dark fairy tale atmosphere that’s hard to shake off. The cinematography is as classically skillful as Canadians could get, and they’re even on the ball enough to sneak in a little symbolism hither and thither.

So there you have it. Visiting Hours is a fun, well constructed, frightening, smart, satisfying slasher flick. The fact that I could write for this long without even bringing up William Shatner speaks to how arresting it is. I do wish that some of Colt’s scenes were a little less… rapey, but they’re tolerably managed and play a huge part in the thesis of the film. Oh, Canada. What would I do without you?

Killer: Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside)
Final Girl: Deborah Balin (Lee Grant)
Best Kill: An elderly patient has her air tube cut and Colt takes her picture as she asphyxiates.
Sign of the Times: Lisa wears a leather jacket over a hot pink outfit with diagonal stripes and she isn’t arrested.
Scariest Moment: Sheila gets a call revealing that the killer is at home with her daughter.
Weirdest Moment: Colt squeezes a stress ball as he murders people.
Champion Dialogue: “You’ve got a lot of friends. Or else you know a lot of florists.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Francine is killed offscreen.
  2. Mrs. Corrigan has her air tube cut.
  3. Connie is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Vinnie is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Cop #1 is thrown through a window.
  6. Cop #2 has his jaw broken.
  7. [Colt is gutted.]
TL;DR: Visiting Hours is a grimy but intelligent slasher that engages very well with the violence against women inherent to the genre.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1210


  1. Dude, Michael Ironside is simply terrifying. That guy dives head first into his villainous roles! I love him in Cronenberg's Scanners and also Total Recall. Always a psycho, always memorable.

    1. I haven't seen Scanners OR Total Recall yet. I have my work cut out for me!